Behind a locked door at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science's old Coconut Grove location is a set of rooms known as the Curious Vault — so named, as New Times once reported, because of their "bizarrely significant" contents. Within the labyrinthine backrooms, everything from taxidermy creatures to New Guinean war clubs are organized on rows of scaffold shelving.
Also among the panoply of 55,000 donated objects, many of which have never been publicly displayed, is reportedly a steel cabinet holding metaphysical-related documents from the 1950s. They belonged to Dr. Valentine, an honorary curator of Frost Science — then called the Miami Science Museum — who was one of South Florida's foremost experts in telepathic communication and the legendary city of Atlantis.
The obscure, even esoteric collection became famous in recent years after Kevin Arrow, the collections manager at the museum, and Nathaniel Sandler, a local writer and New Times contributor (who is currently finding inspiration in the Everglades), collaborated to write a popular column called "The Curious Vault." Together they've analyzed and researched the origins of many of the objects, including a stockpile of 25 turtle shells.
Since Frost Science relocated to its new state-of-the-art complex in downtown Miami this past spring, though, the fate of the Curious Vault has been unknown. New Times has learned that the backrooms themselves are poised to be demolished next year when the entire building is to be bulldozed to make way for a new urban garden.
In the meantime, the mythic collection of curiosities is being parsed through, and many interesting objects are getting the attention they deserve.
A portion of the Curious Vaults contents have already been moved to the Frost Science's new facility. Rather than collecting dust on storage shelves, the treasured specimens, which long eluded locals, are now finally on public display.
If you've visited the museum's new downtown location, you likely already passed by the "From the Curious Vault" exhibition. Located on the ramp that descends from the Aquarium Deep Level Mezzanine (the area by the 31-foot oculus lens) down to the MeLab, the Frost team has set up 36 aquamarine-colored display cases that feature objects from the long-hidden collection highlighting human ingenuity, natural history, and anthropology.
Each display offers a glimpse into the increasingly distant past. There are old aviation photos of Albert Green, who played a key role in the development of the helicopter during the 1930s and '40s. There are also birds on display from the museum’s taxidermy collection. Though interesting to look at, the three birds — a Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker, and passenger pigeon — are all now extinct. Even older, there are four cases that feature the colorful diversity and textures of minerals.
You can also check out a few of the sea turtle shells — green, hawksbill, and loggerhead — that Arrow and Sandler once wrote about. Though beautiful, the museum staff says the shells serve as a cautionary reminder of how overfishing, poaching, and habitat loss decimated the marine animals' bountiful numbers along Florida's coastline.
Some of the Curious Vault objects are scattered in other parts of the new science complex, too — but unless you know what you're looking for, you might overlook an item that was once kept hidden from the public for decades. "In addition to the 'From the Curious Vault' exhibition, there are also collection items displayed throughout the museum in several exhibitions," a museum spokesperson told New Times.
Though many objects have been relocated to downtown, not all of the thousands of Curious Vault objects are on display at the new museum. The Frost team is still determining what to do with many of the objects back at the old location.
"The museum administration is currently accessing the state of its former exhibits and items and their potential," the spokesperson says.
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